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EU agrees 'historic' reform of asylum laws

BRUSSELS: The EU on Wednesday (Dec 20) agreed to an overhaul of its asylum system that includes more border detention centres and speedier deportations, prompting migrant charities to slam the changes as “dangerous”.

But EU governments, officials and MEPs hailed the preliminary accord on the bloc’s new pact on asylum and migration as “historic”, saying it updated procedures to handle growing irregular arrivals while maintaining respect for human rights.

The legislative reform reached after lengthy negotiations between EU member countries and bloc lawmakers, has yet to be formally adopted by the European Council and European Parliament.

That is expected to be done before June 2024, when EU elections will decide the next parliament.

Nationalist, anti-immigrant parties are forecast to win more seats in the parliament, reflecting a harder stance among EU voters struggling with a high cost of living.

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen welcomed the “historic” agreement on “a fair and pragmatic approach to managing migration”.

Many EU countries, including France, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands also hailed the accord.

Italy’s interior minister, Matteo Piantedosi, called the agreed reform a “great success”, saying frontline countries like his own “no longer feel alone”.

But Hungary – which objects to having to take in irregular migrants or pay countries that do – rejected the deal in the “strongest possible terms,” its foreign minister Peter Szijjarto said.

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FASTER SCREENING

The EU reform includes faster vetting of irregular arrivals, creating border detention centres, accelerated deportation for rejected asylum applicants and a solidarity mechanism to take pressure off southern countries experiencing big inflows.

The overhaul, based on a commission proposal put forward three years ago, keeps the existing principle under which the first EU country an asylum-seeker enters is responsible for their case.

But to help countries experiencing a high number of arrivals — as is the case with Mediterranean countries Italy, Greece and Malta — a compulsory solidarity mechanism would be set up.

That would mean a certain number of migrant relocations to other EU countries, or countries that refuse to take in migrants would provide a financial or material contribution to those that do — something Budapest is fiercely against.

The reform also accelerates the vetting of asylum-seekers so those deemed ineligible can be quickly sent back to their home country or country of transit.

That procedure – which requires border detention centres being set up – would apply to irregular migrants coming from countries whose nationals’ asylum requests are rejected in more than 80 per cent of cases.

Families with young children would have adequate conditions, human rights monitoring would take place and free legal advice provided, MEPs said.

Another point is a proposed “surge response” under which protections for asylum-seekers could be curtailed in times of significant inflows, as happened in 2015-2016 when more than two million asylum-seekers arrived in the EU, many from war-torn Syria.

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CHARITIES CRTICISM

Dozens of charities that help migrants criticised the changes.

The deal “will cost more lives at sea,” the Sea-Watch ship rescue charity said, arguing that it was “a bow to the right-wing parties of Europe”.

Oxfam said the new package is “in many ways… far worse” than the existing system, with one of its migration experts, Stephanie Pope, calling it “a dangerous dismantling of the key principles of human rights and refugee law”.

Amnesty International said the “likely outcome is a surge in suffering on every step of a person’s journey to seek asylum in the EU”, while the Danish Refugee Council complained that “the EU should protect refugees – not make it harder for them”.

Despite these concerns, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced his “satisfaction” with the effort “to implement a strict but fair immigration policy”.

UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi said the agreement was “a very positive step” and the UN refugee agency “stands ready to advise and support” as it is put into action.

The EU is seeing a rising number of irregular migrant arrivals and asylum requests.

In the first 11 months of this year, the EU border agency Frontex has registered more than 355,000 irregular border crossings into the bloc, an increase of 17 per cent over the same period last year.

The number of asylum-seekers this year could top one million, according to the EU Agency for Asylum.

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